Public Relations (PR) has been around for thousands of years ever since humanity developed language and society. Leaders of ancient civilizations like the Persians, Egyptians, and Babylonians all engaged in PR via poems, architecture, and art in an attempt to shape and expand the reach of their reputation. Many of those PR efforts of old have made it to our digital days, showing just how important and long-lasting a good PR campaign can be.
While most people don’t commission the making of statues, temples, and works of art these days, PR continues to be essential in the world of business, media, and government. Bill Gates is often quoted as saying: “If I only had two dollars left I would spend one dollar on PR”. While the origin of this quote can be debated, the truth it speaks of can’t be denied.
With the internet now shaping how we communicate, invest, and access information, PR is more important than ever. Having a good reputation among peers, customers, and clients, has proven to translate to more success, which is just what PR seeks to do. Unfortunately, when PR fails to fulfill its mission, disaster can ensue.
The Dangers of Bad PR
Great PR efforts go unnoticed more often than not as they work silently to improve or restore reputation. Bad PR tends to have the opposite effect, especially at a time when memes, shorts, and other viral mediums become the rule. There are many examples of bad PR campaigns out there, which makes it hard to choose one as the worst.
Let’s take a look at one of the most well-known PR disasters of recent times: Pepsi’s infamous Black Lives Matter commercial. This commercial featured Kendall Jenner and was aired on the 49th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In the commercial, the “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” starlet was depicted joining the crowd after a protester nodded her to join while she was shooting, just to later hand a Pepsi can to a police officer as the crowd cheers and the screen reads “Live bolder. Live louder. Live for now”.
The commercial was received with harsh criticism from both experts and the general public, often being referred to as “tone-deaf” by the media. Rev Dr. Bernice King, Dr. King’s daughter, referred to the commercial by tweeting “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi. Those organizing the protest also were quick to criticize the commercial, with the executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute telling the NY Times “That’s not what it looks like to take bold action”.
It has now been 5 years since the commercial was aired and then removed the next day but people and the internet have not forgotten the fiasco. This is despite Pepsi and Jenner’s public apologies, with the starlet even breaking down in tears while doing so. While the original commercial and all of its copies have been deleted from YouTube, Saturday Night Live’s parody has amassed almost 11 million to date.
The commercial has now become not only a case study but also a constant reference on how brands fail to recognize the relevance of current events. The brand’s efforts to fix the disaster it caused were just as bad as its research before airing it, consisting only of apologizing via a tweet and focusing its efforts on hiding the evidence. Pepsi’s apology read:
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
The reactions to the apology itself were mixed, with most criticism on social media making reference to the brand apologizing to Kendal Jenner.
Other infamous examples of bad PR include Susan Boyle’s #susanalbumparty, McDonald’s #McDStories, Woody Harrelson’s disastrous Ask Me Anything (AMA) on Reddit, Tidal’s inflated numbers with the lawsuit threats that followed, and Adida’s email congratulating those who “survived” the Boston Marathon. There are many more examples that come to mind when thinking of disastrous PR but really few when you look for good examples, which is exactly the point.
What Constitutes Bad PR?
While it is commonly said that “there is no such thing as bad publicity”, this saying couldn’t be further from the truth. While good PR can certainly turn a dire situation around, bad publicity has ended the careers of many, destroyed brands, and created pariahs. As such, bad PR in a moment of crisis is a major risk that every brand (personal or not) should try to avoid.
The most common scenario resulting in bad PR is having no PR at all. Many people and organizations believe that PR should only be taken into consideration in a moment of crisis, which is just wrong. If you want to oversimplify, reputation management can be seen as subtracting the negatives from the positives. If you haven’t made an effort to gain a positive reputation, when a disaster occurs you will have less material to work with.
Of course, there is so much more to PR than just thinking of it as a mathematical formula. Elements like SEO, press releases, speech writing, networking, and social media all play roles when it comes to reputation. PR is just like marketing that must account for customers, media, regulators, politicians, partners, manufacturers, etc, no matter if they have a direct relationship with you or your brand.
Bad PR will often be defined by bad communication, poor timing, lack of exposure, no follow-ups, conformity, or lack of plans. Let’s take Adida’s case as an example of poor timing and bad communication: the company sent an email congratulating those who “survived” the Boston marathon. While this email would have been perfectly acceptable prior to 2013, the bombing changed that forever.
Another common mistake in the world of business, especially when it comes to startups, is the excessive or insufficient publishing of press releases. It is not unusual to read a press release that doesn’t really warrant the format, resulting in readers losing interest over time and missing on press releases with actual importance. In the other case, how can the public know about major developments if they are not announced? Press releases are the preferred means for media outlets to know about what is going on in a lot of industries… Trust us, we would know.
In addition to press releases, there is another practice that results in bad PR most of the time: Not establishing a good relationship with media outlets. It is not uncommon for PR firms or specialists to approach outlets with ludicrous demands, rudeness, poorly written information, or lack of research. With media outlets being bombarded with requests, press releases, proposals, and invitations, failing to build strong relationships is inexcusable. Make sure to network and cultivate your relationships!
There is probably a no better example than GoDaddy when it comes to failing to understand your audience. You might remember SOPA, a bill proposed in 2011 to stop piracy online that was received with a strong backlash from the internet community. Back then, GoDaddy decided to join the list of a few internet companies that supported the bill, causing customers to boycott the company. The backlash was so strong that GoDaddy was forced to stop supporting the legislation before opposing it altogether after having lost more than 37k domains,
Lastly, another error that will invariably result in bad PR is failing to be on top of current events or trends before jumping in, especially when it comes to your audience. A great example of failure in this area is DiGiorno’s infamous “#WhyIStayed You had pizza” tweet. If you are not aware of the trend, you surely see nothing wrong with this tweet. Well, the hashtag was being used to discuss domestic violence at that time…
There are innumerable ways to make bad PR, making it impossible to list them all. However, as long as you do your research, have quality control processes in place, and start building your reputation before a crisis, you should be safe.
Repairing Your Reputation
The damage is done and your reputation is suffering, what should you do now? The most important thing is not to rush as this will help you avoid making the situation worse. With good PR, you can turn the situation around most of the time.
Most often than not, PR specialists will focus on finding feel-good coverage to fight whatever caused your reputation to get tarnished. While this strategy can certainly help in some instances, it is recommended not to rely on it. Let’s face it, you made a mistake of some kind if you are looking to repair your reputation and most people won’t fall for that kind of coverage.
To start repairing your reputation in the right way, the first step is to identify what caused your reputation to go down. Did you communicate poorly on social media and created a misunderstanding? Did you fail to take care of a customer’s needs in the proper way? Maybe you launched a poll without accounting for internet trolls?
Once you have identified the root cause, you can start thinking about the best way to deal with it. An apology, clarification, change of plans, offering compensation, or even embracing it are some of the strategies you could follow. What is important here is not only to “solve” the immediate issue but to prove to the public that the situation will not happen again.
Take Britney Spears as an example when she attacked a paparazzi with an umbrella, seemed to hold her children hostage, and shaved her head in public back in 2007 and 2008. These events were a disaster for the public image of the “Princess of Pop”, resulting in derision and criticism from even the most loyal fans. Once her PR team announced that the situation was caused by mental health issues and she would be undergoing treatment. Just 2 years later, she would break the record for the highest-grossing American tour and is now a speaker for mental health awareness.
Once you have taken these first steps, it is now a matter of running an online reputation management project using tools like reverse SEO, inbound linking, and name-in-title coverage to ensure they stick. These strategies are all about changing the focus from the element that caused the damage to your reputation to what you are doing to repair it and the good you have done. This is the reason why actually making amends matters!
With search engines like Google, DuckDuckGo, and Bing being the main source of information for people, changing the contents of the first pages is essential. If someone searches for your name or your brand’s, the last thing you want them to find is whatever caused the problem in the first place. As such, it is essential to use SEO to improve the visibility of the positive content and reverse SEO to lower the negative.
When trying to get the record straight, getting personal can also be a good idea. Everyone knows we all make mistakes, which is why in some instances it can be a great idea to participate in a podcast or interview. By doing so, you might be able to connect more directly with your audience and change their perspective as the format is more interactive, allowing you to establish more credibility.
As we said before: repairing a tarnished reputation is possible but won’t be an easy process. It will require you to work with a specialist, actively monitor and bolster your online profiles, create positive content, request content deletion, and much more… Patience will be needed.
The most important thing here is to make sure you work with someone who knows what they are doing. Don’t think you can solve the issue yourself or the issue will just go away, it won’t!